From the American Revolution to abolitionism and beyond, Boston has played an outsized role in offering leadership to the entire nation. Now Boston has another opportunity for moral leadership, but it will require some recent troubling events to become an anomaly, not the norm.
Last month, Gordon College President D. Michael Lindsay was singled out by Boston media for signing a letter to President Obama, asking that religious groups be neither advantaged nor disadvantaged in federal contracts because of their beliefs. Contrary to the impression created by many news stories and pundits, this was not some new proposal by the authors of this letter. They were asking for the same kind of religious exemption that was already contained in the 2013 Employment Non-Discrimination Act — a bill that was passed resoundingly by the Senate (though it languishes in the House); a bill that was supported by both of Massachusetts’ senators; a bill that President Obama supported; and a bill that the Human Rights Campaign, one of the largest national gay-rights groups, still supports.
The president, the senators who voted for the exemption in ENDA, and the Human Rights Campaign could hardly be called “holy rollers” or homophobes; but Lindsay’s advocacy for the exemption earned him and Gordon College repeated excoriation for what has been misleadingly characterized as a “request to discriminate” against the LGBT community.
In an environment of overheated rhetoric (perhaps because of the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision), let’s consider the facts. The college, to my knowledge, does not deny admission or employment to a gay applicant who is willing, like all applicants, to affirm support for the institution’s Christian tenets and agree to abide by its community standards of behavior. The college continues to be engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogues, the Green Chemistry Education Network, the Accessible Icon (a widely adopted symbol affirming ability over disability) and a wide array of community service projects. I’ve spoken at Gordon, attended conferences at Gordon, and sent students to Gordon because I’ve found it to be a place open to respectful dialogue with those whose ideas or beliefs might run counter to their own.
It’s a sad thing when good institutions and good people are unfairly characterized or misrepresented. It’s the kind of sadness (and anger) that I feel when vitriolic, demeaning or hateful language are directed against people because of their race, gender, or sexual identity. In both cases, we poison our public discourse and undermine our ability to have the critical conversations that can lead to constructive change.
I think that Boston can offer a better way forward. That way begins with the recognition that our community, like the rest of this country, is becoming more and more diverse. For diverse people and institutions to work and live together, pluralism must flourish. When government seeks to dictate the internal norms of religious institutions, pluralism withers. When media or public figures on either side of an argument misrepresent their opponents, pluralism withers. That better way forward acknowledges the tension between the rights of religious institutions to hold their members and employees to codes of conduct and the rights of individuals to be free from discrimination in public and private spheres. That better way also insists that our dialogue and debates about that tension be respectful of and honest about each other.
Like most Americans, I want to see all citizens, including members of our LGBT community, thrive, flourish and be treated justly. Like most Americans, I don’t want to see an institution shouted down — or shut down — for upholding its religious tradition. As a friend, the late Rev. Peter J. Gomes, the longtime and celebrated minister at Harvard, who identified himself as a gay man, put it well in an interview with Christianity Today in 2003: “Religious communities have to come to their own decisions, as opposed to being coerced by the civil liberty establishment.”
A true, non-coercive pluralism is desperately needed in America. Boston could become the national model. But that will require us to accept and debate our genuine differences (including moral disagreement) in a spirit of respect, humility, and generosity. I don’t believe it’s too late for Boston to be known for that kind of leadership.